A friend recently brought this up to me, and it’s something that’s driven me nuts for years: people holding onto the handles of cardio equipment (mainly treadmills, stair masters, and steppers).
While you may think holding on enables you to bump up the intensity of your workout, it’s actually doing just the opposite, and has potential negative side effects on your posture and spine.
I know, I know: but, Laura, holding on to the handles means I can work at a higher level! Yes, technically you can crank the machine up higher, but you’ll actually burn *fewer* calories doing this. How big of a calorie burn, you ask? Research shows it’s anywhere from 30-50% decreased, depending on the machine and your body, obviously. You could literally only be burning half the calories you could be or think you are because of holding onto the handles!
(This is also a good time to mention that if calorie counting is really important to you, it’s crucial you enter your information into your cardio machine before starting. If you don’t, the calorie burn it shows you is generally based off something like a 40 year old 5’8” male who is 150-160 pounds…and chances are, “his” typical calorie burn is VERY different from yours. [Unless, of course, you happen to be a 5’8” 40 year old 155 lb male reading this!] These machines also only give you rough estimates of your calorie burn, especially if you’re not checking your heart rate from time to time. The machine doesn’t know your lean muscle mass, your average heart rate or workload, the machine doesn’t know your life, ha! Be aware of that as you’re doing your cardio. Products like the Apple Watch or Polar heart rate devices are a safer bet when you’re really concerned with calorie burn. Also, don’t forget to crank up your strength training weekly when wanting to torch calories!-It’s crucial for building lean muscle mass, which helps you burn more calories at rest every day!)
Holding onto the handles of your stair master is probably causing you to throw your body out of alignment, as well. Note the pictures below. See how in the first set, my spine is tall and mostly flat (working on slight alignment myself still)? My head is looking straight forward, and I’m able to take deep, controlled breaths as I move. Then, note in the ones where I’m holding the handles how my back is very rounded and my hips are out of alignment. My head is also looking down, because of the forward shifting, which is placing additional weight on my body (for every degree forward your head shifts in front of shoulder and hip alignment, it adds 10 pounds of pressure!).
That’s a lot of stress to be putting on your body while it’s already trying to deal with the metabolic stress from your cardio session. Catching a deep breath is also much harder in this position, since you’re rounding, instead of elongating and opening, the diaphragm.
Lastly, you’re eliminating a great perk of certain cardio equipment (especially Stairmasters/steppers) when you hold onto the handles, and that’s the core workout you get from having to balance as you move. Hello, abs! Why not get that core workout in while you step?
All in all, it’s much better to let go! A good rule of thumb is if you can’t keep up with the level you’re at without holding onto the machine’s handles, turn it down! It’s better for your safety, for your calorie burn, your core, and your spine. Now get stepping!